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Hope Decoded: A Social Science Experiment Gone Right

04/23/2015 05:43 EDT | Updated 06/23/2015 05:59 EDT

No one person or one group has the capability to solve hopelessness in our society, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. How do we begin to tackle an issue as all encompassing and unwieldy as hopelessness?

For one week in March, the Peter Lougheed Leadership Institute at The Banff Centre convened Hope Decoded, a gathering of the most unlikely of people in the hopes of kick-starting the conversation. What ensued was a rollercoaster ride of emotion, tension, and passion, but the end result was nothing short of hopeful.

As with so many challenges of the like, finding a starting point is often a hurdle in and of itself. Who are the right people to convene? Who should be the convener? What does success look like? What is the best road map for achieving it? Far too often we allow the pursuit of perfection to be the enemy of not only the good, but also the enemy of just beginning. Somewhere. Anywhere.

Upon seeing a problem being ignored due to ideological bias and a lack of societal stick-with-it-ness, Lougheed Leadership had the intestinal fortitude to jump into the deep end of the pool, taking on the issue of hopelessness. It was an act that inspired several dozen, diverse leaders to take time away from their busy personal and professional lives to participate in the gathering that was Hope Decoded.

The week's discourse was built on the foundation of a purposefully ambiguous process -- one that allowed for co-creative, in-the-moment adaptation -- and a lack of pre-determined metrics for success. As someone who is stubbornly fixated on solutions and outcomes, it was uncomfortable for many and for me, most especially. Yet it was undeniably refreshing and absolutely imperative to breaking down preconceived notions and ridding the room of the many blinders that we, unknowingly or unintentionally, almost always bring with us to a conversation of this magnitude.

In fact, deconstructing barriers and fostering empathy for those we might not agree with or understand, was at the heart of Hope Decoded. The belief being that if unusual suspects can talk to one another in new ways, the conversation, at its core, will be unique and fruitful and, thus, successful -- no matter what that concluding success looks like.

That guiding principal was unquestionably correct. Sometimes by design and many times by accident, empathy was fostered and, as absurd as it might sound, a sense of family bond was created among those who attended.

Having strong mentors -- thought leaders like Charles Tsai, Laura Nanni, and Dev Aujla -- helped the conversation stay on track, a tough task with a room full of A-type personalities, each more comfortable with steering the agenda than co-creating it with their fellow participants. But most interestingly, no one person had a bigger impact on the dialogue and nor did a better job at creating the needed space for openness than Elder Dila Houle.

As someone who has attended many residencies, summits, and conferences, I've bared witness to many sycophantic, tokenistic inclusions of traditional knowledge and First Nation ceremony, most having failed to achieve the intended goal of mutual respect and understanding. Yet somehow this gathering managed to avoid those pratfalls and everyone grew as a result. In a room inclusive of, but not dominated by, the indigenous voice, Elder Dila succeeded in calming frayed emotions, humbly offered her wisdom as needed, and allowed everyone to come together as equals.

And equals we were. Artists and advocates brainstormed with business leaders and policy makers. Acclaimed academics learned from experiential stories. Front line activists worked alongside those committed to working from within traditional power structures. And societal frictions -- geography, ideology, ethnicity, gender -- were neither ignored, nor allowed to divide.

Indeed, the bond between disparate parties softened the ground for learning, opening the door for traditional and non-traditional educational tools to be provided and accepted with the intent of equipping those in attendance with the means to tackle hopelessness.

In a room full of champions, four representatives of four very different, yet equally important causes -- The Winnipeg Boldness Project, Homeward Trust Edmonton, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and CoalitionWILD -- stepped forward to allow for participants in Hope Decoded to dissect their challenges. The goal: use these real world examples of what the intersection of hopelessness and hopefulness looks like and use their unique perspectives to inform the discourse on how we, as a society, can scale up hope. And of course, in tackling the individual issues, avoid fixating on solutions, but rather ask better questions, find newer starting points, and test possible road maps for moving forward.

It was a risky proposition. After all, would the four cause champions grow to resent being under the microscope? And would the multitude of other champions in the room resent energy being dedicated to issues other than their own?

Yet the concerns were for not. From cause champions to participants to mentors, the group rallied together, driven by a desire to help and a willingness to check ego and bias at the door. Though that is not to say Hope Decoded was utopia -- far from it.

Without exaggeration, the week was painful and frustrating for many. It wasn't just emotionally exhausting work. The journey took many people to their limits and then well past them -- beyond their comfort zones; beyond their perceived capabilities, beyond their rational limits for adaptability and cooperation.

Yet, when the representatives for the four causes that informed the design work reflected on the week that was, each stated they felt recharged and refocused. The participants? They spoke about being empowered and enriched. Everyone felt like they contributed to something bigger than themselves, while equally gaining something unquantifiable and personally transformational.

But what did it all mean for the aforementioned goal of taking a new look at the old problem of hopelessness? Interestingly, the idea of fostering hope -- or combatting hopelessness -- rarely emerged explicitly in conversation.

In fact, as this odd mix of passionate citizens worked together in new and staggering ways, the week became about building relationships, interweaving different perspectives and constantly evolving how we ask the questions that so often pre-determine the kind of solutions we seek to achieve. It was about the work of those in the room and how it informs larger societal issues; it was less about coming in hopeless and leaving more hopeful.

By the time the four-day residency ended and gave way to a half-day summit that injected 125 new voices into the tight-knit, week-long group of 50, what was help up for inspection and introspection wasn't a better question for us to ask to re-start the conversation on hopelessness, nor was it an innovative road map to be tested and replicated across sectors. What was on display was humanity at its best and the reaffirmation that invention and hope is rooted not only in new ideas, but also in the basic principal of people coming together and learning from unique experiences.

But isn't that what fostering hope is all about?

For me, I loved watching athletes and politicians and financiers and activists and academics and artists and conservatives and liberals and cynics and optimists come together in ways I've never witnessed before. To laugh together. To listen together. To talk together. To work together.

Hope Decoded was an imperfect collection of diverse thinkers engaging in an unclear, un-stage-managed process that sought to tackle hopelessness, but instead fostered new empathy for different perspectives.

It might lead to new solutions for four battle-tested cause champions. It will almost certainly lead to asymmetrical collaborations that could eventually produce new ideas for far larger societal challenges. And it will most definitely allow dozens and dozens of people to think differently, to ask better questions -- personally and professionally -- when debating and tackling the issues of our time.

Lougheed Leadership at The Banff Centre had the foresight and the courage to buck the trend and engage in a messy, highly-charged, divisively-defined, and far-reaching societal problem, and did so without railroading an agenda or outcomes on the process. This might not be fundamentally unique if they were to have convened only ten people or convened a group accustomed to this type of dialogue. But they didn't.

Hope Decoded avoided the status quo and took the risk of bringing together a large, divergent mix of people -a group, for the most part, outside of The Banff Centre's orbit -- a group of strangers, a group of unusual suspects.

And yes, it's true: Hope Decoded didn't solve hopelessness. It didn't even overtly address hopelessness.

But it accomplished so much more.

Regardless of how I or others reflect on the summit today or in ten years from now, it can't be denied that the week was anything less than hope personified. It was, truth be told, the very definition of what a more hopeful society can embody.

If those who attended can carry forward the ideals of empathy and openness; if we can duplicate the conversations in new arenas with different conveners; if we can scale up the passion and compassion on display throughout that week in March, then I truly believe Hope Decoded will have sparked a ripple effect that just might foster a better, more hopeful world.